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Crime concerns weigh heavy on Council

Capping off a brainstorming session for solutions to violent crime, Memphis City Council members adopted a resolution asking the Tennessee Highway Patrol and Shelby County Sheriff’s Office to direct additional state troopers to supplement the city’s police force.

The request, which came during the council’s Tuesday (Sept. 13) meeting, calls for at least 50 officers for six weeks or more. The additional officers would supplement the local force by taking over intersection patrols, which would allow for increased neighborhood surveillance. 

It follows a week of violence that left the city searching for answers to a growing violent crime problem, especially youth offenders. 

The resolution was sponsored by Rhonda Logan, who chairs the council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee.

Council members were joined by Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, who delivered an update on the city’s crime problem and police force staffing numbers.

Council members were told the overall crime rate saw the biggest increases in auto thefts, thefts from autos, aggravated assaults, burglaries, and shoplifting, with many of the vehicle thefts/burglaries committed by teens 15-19 years old.

However, it was the recent spree of killings and unrelated kidnapping and murder that held members’ focus.

“Wednesday night (Sept. 7) was nothing short of a terrorist attack and, as I am fond of saying, only the police were chasing this guy, because we’re not professionally trained.

“It was you guys (police officers) that chased him down, got him into custody, did the right thing. So, for what it’s worth, thank you,” said council member Frank Colvett Jr.

 Colvett’s comments were references to the shooting and carjacking rampage that left three people dead and three people injured while terrorizing most of the city. 

Ezekiel Kelly, 19, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with one of the slayings. More charges are anticipated.

On Tuesday (Sept. 13), General Sessions Criminal Court Judge Karen Massey issued a gag order on the case during an appearance by Kelly.

The shooting spree was preceded by the kidnapping and murder of Eliza “Liza” Fletcher. A security camera captured footage of the 34-year-old mother of two being forcefully kidnapped during a pre-dawn run on Central Avenue on Sept. 2.

The member of a prominent Memphis family, her body was later found in tall grass near a vacant home in South Memphis on Sept. 5. 

Cleotha Henderson has been charged with first-degree murder and especially aggravated kidnapping. He was released from state prison in 2020 after serving more than two decades for kidnapping Memphis attorney Kemper Durand.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Memphis Police Department, DNA collected from Fletcher has connected Henderson, 38, regarding a Sept. 21, 2021 kidnapping and rape. 

For council members, the call for additional officers was a last-minute stop-gap solution. Several avenues for attacking the issue were also pondered and proposed.

“Memphis, when you think of it in terms of an ecosystem, to say that we need more police officers is only part of the solution. We have many social issues, I think, that are also driving this,” said Colvett.

To provide a comprehensive review, he proposed an ad hoc committee. It would be like one under consideration by the Shelby County Commission, which is up for vote later in the month. 

That item’s sponsor, Commissioner Mick Wright, tweeted his receptiveness to a partnership between the bodies.

“I think it’s really important that we really look at what we are doing with our young people before they get to the age where they’re vulnerable to all of these various elements that seem to pull them into the criminal justice system,” said Chief Davis.

According to statistics provided by the MPD, most of the crimes driving the numbers upward are also being committed by youthful offenders, with some as young as 11 years old. 

“It’s a very complex situation, because you’re still talking about children. But, when they become 13,14, 15, the activity escalates … It becomes a carjacking, or an aggravated assault, or something of that nature,” said Davis.

Gang membership is also contributing to the increase in violent crime. Its connections to the recent horror were not lost on the council.

“Half, or more, of them are juveniles (offenders) because they’re treated like child soldiers. You look at Ezekial Kelly and Cleotha Abston (Henderson). Both of them were in contact with the gang system at 11, 12, 13,” said councilmember Chase Carlisle.

Council member Ford Canale proffered a “group or committee” that would track a case from the arrest to bail or eventual release from prison. More details would come later in a proposal. He also recommended more work programs for offenders transitioning into society.

During the update, Davis said the police force currently stands at 1,900 officers, with 96 recruits currently halfway through training. Last year, a committee led by Logan set a goal of 2,500 officers.

 

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